Dáil debates

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Adjournment Debate

Planning Legislation.

7:00 pm

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I seek the repeal of the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006. I opposed the Bill's passage through this House in the final days of the session prior to the commencement of the summer recess in July 2006. Sinn Féin remains absolutely opposed to the anti-democratic intent of this legislation that facilitates the rushing through, railroading and imposition of major infrastructural projects, irrespective of their effects in environmental or health terms on citizens or on whole communities.

In our contributions in the course of the passage of this legislation Sinn Féin Deputies spelled out clearly its intent and purpose and our opposition. This legislation allows major infrastructural projects to bypass the planning process, denies citizens and communities their right to give effect to their objections in that process and fast-tracks approval through the strategic infrastructure division of An Bord Pleanála. Incinerators, thermal power stations, landfill sites, oil and gas pipelines and installations, motorway routes, electricity power line link-ups and much more besides are facilitated by the legislation. It is the latter, the electricity power line link-ups, that has prompted our return to the legislation in question. EirGrid has now publicly indicated its intent to put in place a North-South interconnector from counties Tyrone and Armagh and through County Monaghan and into County Cavan. It has a second power line proposal between counties Meath and Cavan.

It would appear that despite the clearly expressed opposition of countless thousands of families who live in close proximity to the proposed routes of these power lines and their support pylons, EirGrid remains fixed on its overhead approach to these projects. The same can be said of NIE, Northern Ireland Electricity, which is jointly on board with EirGrid in the first of the two projects signalled. Communities the length of these proposed power lines are vehemently opposed to the introduction of these unsightly pylons and fearful for the health of all exposed to these high voltage power conduits, fearful for themselves collectively, for their families, and for the children of these communities.

It is an absolute essential, I believe, that we recognise the harrowing reality of the outworking of the passage of the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006. The extent of concern, real fear, and absolute opposition voiced throughout the length and the breadth of counties Armagh, through Monaghan and Cavan and into County Meath knows no bounds. It knows no political boundaries and people of all opinions and none are joining as concerned communities endeavouring to ensure that EirGrid and NIE in their particular area of responsibility deal with these proposed projects, important infrastructural developments that they be, from an undergrounding approach. There can be no question that there is significant information on record, eminent professional and well-researched opinion, stating clearly that there is every reason for genuine health concerns and there can be no question as to the visual impact on the environment of this unsightly string of pylon structures, stretching some 130 plus km along the length of the two routes suggested.

It is imperative, therefore, in light of the continued obstinacy of EirGrid and NIE, that we in this jurisdiction respond to the concerns of communities, families and citizens, who are dependent on their elected voices to deliver. In this instance, it is our bounden duty to revisit this legislation, mindful of its role in facilitating these major developers in carrying out their specific plans. We need to restore access to the proper planning process. We need to ensure there is compliance by all who wish to see major projects undertaken. We need to ensure that communities and citizens have the right to engage as objectors in the normal course.

I appeal to the Minister and to the Government to take on board this Deputy's concerns, concerns reflected by colleagues of his own and of all opinion represented in this House. It is now time for action and to properly and responsibly revisit this legislation.

Photo of Pat CareyPat Carey (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy Ó Caoláin for raising the issues of democracy, accountability and participation in the planning process. One of the main goals set for the coming years by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, on whose behalf I am taking this adjournment matter, is to maximise public participation in the planning process, from the forward planning stage to development management. It is a matter of major importance to others besides Deputy Ó Caoláin.

Repealing the provisions of the strategic infrastructure Act would not do anything to enhance public participation or community involvement in the planning process. In fact, it would do the very opposite. The strategic infrastructure Act has introduced a number of key measures designed to ensure that projects which go through the new strategic consent process are subject to even greater public scrutiny than projects which go through the normal planning process, both at pre-application and application stage.

Specifically, the Act is designed to provide a better quality service for all stakeholders, infrastructure providers, State bodies and the general public alike, through a single stage consent process of approval for projects, a rigorous assessment of all projects including their environmental impact, full public consultation, and greater certainty of timeframes. Our existing planning system is an inclusive one which rightly provides for extensive public participation at various stages and ensures that all concerns can be fully taken into account when crucial decisions are taken. The strategic consent process in no way compromises or "short circuits" democratic involvement. However, what the new consent system does achieve is a streamlining that allows for full democratic participation, ensures transparency and accountability, and strikes the right balance between the national interest and the views and concerns of local groups and individuals.

The Act protects the rights of everyone to participate in the process and affords opportunities for members of the public, residents or environmental groups to make known their views on proposed infrastructure projects. Pre-application consultations also form an integral part of the new process. The purpose of these consultations is to ensure that the subsequent application for permission-approval is of a high standard, that correct procedures are followed, that adequate information is submitted and that issues relating to proper planning and sustainable development and the effects on the environment are adequately addressed from the outset in the application. Crucially, from the point of view of maximising community involvement, the board has powers to include in the process any person who in its opinion is in possession of information relevant to the proposed development. For the purposes of transparency, on conclusion of the pre-application process, records of any meetings held with prospective applicants will be made available by the board for inspection by the public.

At application stage proper, the very same extensive rights of public participation that exist in relation to "normal" planning applications apply equally under the new process. This means that, before making a decision, the board is legally obliged to consider submissions made in relation to an application. As well as having their views taken into consideration during the decision-making process, third parties also have the right to be notified of any new significant information provided by an applicant; request an oral hearing; and be notified of the decision of the board. It is worth noting that the chairperson of An Bord Pleanála has signalled that its general policy will be to hold oral hearings in all cases other than the most straightforward.

The Act also recognises the potential role for locally elected representatives in the consent process for major infrastructure development in their areas, by giving them the opportunity to have their views, both collective and individual, included in a report from the local authority or authorities potentially affected by such a development. These views, with those of the managers of the relevant local authorities, and those submitted by members of the public and other third parties, must then be taken into consideration by the board in making its determination on a particular application.

The provisions contained in the strategic infrastructure Act not only uphold but also significantly enhance the democratic participation, transparency and accountability associated with the planning process.